Film salutes video game pioneers
January 17, 2007
Lincoln Ruchti and Michael Verrechia won’t be delivered to the world premiere of their first feature-length film in a limousine. Laughing, Verrechia says, "more like a Hyundai." But for the two filmmakers, being accepted into the Sundance Film Festival is on a par with an Oscar nomination.
Their luggage, however, will require some special handling.
Ruchti and Verrechia’s feature-length film about the golden era of video arcades, and the quirky characters who played them, will screen as part of this year’s Sundance Documentary Competition and the pair plan to pack along a couple of vintage video game cabinets in order to set up a mini arcade to help audiences get into the spirit.
According to Ruchti, the project was inspired by a Life Magazine photo of a group of teens posing in front of the mecca for early video gamers The Twin Galaxies Arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa. They had moved some of the game tables onto the street for the magazine shoot and seeing their 1980s tee shirts and calculator watches, Ruchti had an epiphany.
He called longtime friend Verrechia, and announced that he had found a subject for that movie they had always talked about making one day, a movie that might even be worthy of Sundance.
"Our intention was to make an awesome documentary. Sundance was always the objective. It is perceived as the best, it is the benchmark."
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But funding was as Verrechia, a professional financial consultant says, "a monumental challenge."
They started out by cold calling potential sponsors in the video game industry. "We were shot down in less than two minutes," he said.
Making the calls became a lot like dropping quarters into the slot of a particularly daunting arcade game.
Finally a COO at a video game retail chain in Philadelphia took the bait.
"I had to buy a suit," lamented Ruchti who makes corporate videos for a living.
They worked up a treatment and a business plan managed to charm the executive.
"Considering this was our first film, we were blown away that they signed on with us immediately," said Verrechia.
The next step was to track down some of the players in the photograph. One was Bill Mitchell who is reputed to be one of the few people on Earth to score a perfect game on PacMan. Another was Walter Day, owner of the Twin Galaxies Arcade, who was considered to be "the grandfather of high scoring." Day’s claim to fame was maintaining a scoreboard hotline and keeping track of the game champs. "He was the dreamer who brought them all together," says Verrechia.
Fortunately for Ruchti and Verrechia, Day’s hotline had morphed into a website and Day was eager to help the two filmmakers identify and find the rest of the gang.
They found Mitchell running a group of restaurants in Florida, and learned he was still passionate about playing.
They found Ron and Joel who alternated as champions of "Besrzerk."
Pretty soon Ruchti who lived in Los Angeles and Verrechia who lived in New York, found themselves flying all over the country to talk with the pioneers of what has since become the ubiquitous computer game industry. They reminisced with some of the first players of games like Centipede, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders.
"They were the best of the best&they could play 40 hours on one quarter," said Ruchti. "The guys all had these cool stories to tell."
They struck real pay dirt though when Day pulled an old U-Matic tape out of his personal collection. The tape contained live footage shot in 1982 of some of the same people they had been interviewing and it helped to bring that era back to life.
"We wanted to play on that nostalgia, to take them back to 1982, to remember how the carpets smelled," says Ruchti.
According to Ruchti, "Space Invaders" was one of the first video games in which people dropped a quarter in a slot and played a game on an electronic screen. "Then PacMan explodes and the technology improves and eventually the Nintendo home system came out and everyone went home to play."
Hundreds of video arcades across the country shut down, but the champions whose names once lit up the Twin Galaxies high scoring chart, "still share a moment in time," says Verrechia.
During the Sundance Film Festival their names will be up in lights once again as Sundance filmgoers relive the dawn of the video game era.
Chasing Ghosts is setting up a special Sundance arcade at 333 Main Street, the Main Street Mall, Jan. 19 24. Visitors can play vintage games from the 1980s including TRON, PACMAN, MS. PACMAN, CENTIPEDE, MILLIPEDE, MISSLE COMMAND, ROBOTRON, BERZERK, GALAGA and SUPER PACMAN
"Chasing Ghosts" directed by Lincoln Ruchti and produced by Michael Verrechia screens in the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition at the following times and locations:
Monday, Jan. 22, 11:30 a.m. Prospector Square Theater, Park City
Tuesday, Jan. 23, 9:30 p.m. Holiday Village Cinema IV, Park City
Thursday, Jan. 25, 3:15 p.m. Holiday Village Cinema III, Park City
Friday, Jan. 26, 6:45 p.m. Broadway Centre Cinemas V, SLC
Saturday, Jan. 27, 10 a.m. Holiday Village Cinema IIV, Park City